Accurate forecasts, early warnings saved many from killer tornadoes in Midwest

5:42 AM, Nov 19, 2013   |    comments
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(CBSNews.com) - Maybe it was a matter of divine intervention.

The violent thunderstorms and tornadoes that howled through 12 states on Sunday left behind a swath of destruction, but amazingly, only eight deaths were reported.

One reason so many lives were saved: Forecasters were able to accurately predict the path of the storms. Television and radio warnings, text-message alerts and storm sirens warned people in time to take cover.

The other reason: The storms hit on a Sunday, when many residents were in church. Congregations headed for the safety of the church basements.

"I don't think we had one church damaged," said Gary Manier, mayor of Washington, Ill., a community of 16,000 about 140 miles southwest of Chicago.

An estimated 400 homes in Washington were destroyed when a rare, extremely powerful EF-4 tornado struck.

In Coal City, Ill., tobacco shop owner Muhammad Ali told CBS Chicago that he raced to take shelter at the Christian Life Assembly Church as the storm approached.

"Someone was praying for us, you know, and it was answered at the right time," Ali said.

Still, six people were killed in central and southern Illinois. The storms were the deadliest ever for the month of November in Illinois. Since 1986, there have been 194 tornado warnings in the month of November in Illinois, and more than half of them were issued Sunday, CBS News' Dean Reynolds reported.

Among the victims were an elderly brother and sister killed when their farmhouse in New Minden, Ill., was destroyed. The body of 80-year-old Joseph Hoy was found about 100 yards from the home, the local coroner said. His sister, 78-year-old Frances Hoy, was pulled alive from the rubble but died at a hospital.

New Minden residents Ray Hausler and his wife, Eunice, survived unhurt by sheltering in their cellar. Their house was destroyed.

"It's just unbelievable," Hausler told The Southern Illinoisian. "We're just thankful to God that neither one of us was hurt."

Two people were killed in Michigan. Jackson County Sheriff Steven Rand said a 21-year-old man form Leslie died when a tree crushed his car Sunday night. The Shiawassee County Sheriff's Department said a 59-year-old man was found dead and entangled in high-voltage power wires in Perry after going outside late Sunday to investigate a noise.

The heavy weather also battered parts of Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and western New York. Preliminary estimates from the government say there 71 tornadoes Sunday in seven states.

In Indiana, at least 10 tornadoes touched down Sunday. Significant storm damage was reported in 12 counties, and Gov. Mike Pence was touring the areas Monday.

In Kokomo, Ind., a children's party turned terrifying when a twister hit.

A total of nine children and seven adults were in the Solstice Art Gallery to celebrate Thea Tyra's eighth birthday, CBS affiliate WISH-TV in Indianapolis reported. The kids were about to cut into Thea's cake when her dad opened the building's back door and saw debris flying through the air.

The children and all but two of the adults crammed into a 6-by-6-foot bathroom. Thea's father and uncle huddled right outside the door.

"As soon as they went to shut the door the whole roof peeled off and the walls came tumbling down. We just held on to the kids as hard as we could and got down as far as we could," said gallery owner Marci May.

"I was the last one in there and bent down. Honestly, I don't remember hearing anything except for the kids screaming," said Jennifer Tyra, Thea's stepmom.

In Ohio, heavy winds caused damage to buildings and left tens of thousands without power.

Strong winds knocked out power to thousands in the Milwaukee area, damaged buildings and downed trees in Dodge County, Wis., nd sent Sunday churchgoers scrambling into church basements for safety.

Tornadoes were spotted in at least eight Kentucky counties and at least one home had its roof blown off, a spokesman for the Kentucky Emergency Management said.

Severe storms slammed the eastern part of Missouri, leaving tens of thousands without power and destroying a mobile home.

The National Weather Service said the storm tore shingles off roofs and uprooted trees across parts of St. Louis and St. Louis County. Ameren Missouri reported more than 37,000 power outages Sunday afternoon, mostly in the St. Louis area.

The National Weather Service confirmed that two tornadoes touched down in Middle Tennessee, causing some damage to buildings and homes.

Danielle Ashworth was home with her two young children in their apartment complex in Sumner County when she heard windows shattering. She later realized part of the roof had gone through her window and her neighbor's window.

"It sounded like a bunch of thunder and then when I turned around it just went boom, and our whole window just went shhh, like that," Ashworth told CBS affiliate WTVF in Nashville.

In tornado-ravaged Washington. Ill., survivors are taking stock of what little they have left.

Don and Sylvia Dempsey, married for 50 years, lost the home where they spent 44 of them.

"I don't know what we'll do. We are just devastated. W have no clue what we are going to do," Don Dempsey told CBS News.

Andrea and Ryan Bowers and their 3-month-old daughter, Sydney, rode out the storm in the basement of the storm they bought just last summer. When they emerged from the basement, Andrea Bowers said, they saw "nothing."

"We looked up and there was sky and just a stairway to nothing," she told CBS News.

"I found my wife's purse and I'm trying to look for my wallet and whatever else," Ryan Bowers said. "We just had a baby book of pictures made and I hope we can find that."

© 2013 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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